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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 38 September 10, 2022

Democracy – Beyond the Reform versus Revolution Binary | Aditya Nigam

Friday 9 September 2022, by Aditya Nigam


An arcane intra-Marxist debate has suddenly resurfaced, on social media, following the parting of ways of former Politburo member Kavita Krishnan with her party, the CPI(ML) Liberation. Arguments from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s — especially those that crystallized after Khruschev’s disclosures about the Stalin era — are being retailed all over again. I am not particularly interested in these arguments, having both once been on the other side, defending Stalin and then having gone through the long process of ‘de-stalinizing’ myself. Both sets of arguments are therefore quite familiar.

One question that has come up in these recent arguments, which strikes me as worth reflecting upon, relates to the unthinking ease with which the ’reformist’/ ’revolutionary’ binary is being thrown around, with all the unthought baggage that it entails. I have actually been quite puzzled by this pair and the use to which these terms are put, for a very long time. I have a question - which I want to put out there for a discussion - an opportunity to reflect on together, perhaps, for anyone interested in it. The question is this: what do revolutionaries do in ’non-revolutionary times’? What should they do? Is participation in democratic processes in and of itself, ‘reformist’? And if some revolutionaries indulge in merely spouting revolutionary phraseology, with no impact whatsoever, on society at large, why does their claim to still being revolutionary carry any more weight than say the claim of a coalition/formation like the one in power in Chile, that is trying to bring real change in society. Simply because the latter contests and won and election? The history of Marxism provides some answers or models in practice:

1. Lenin, after the failure of the 1905 revolution and the intensification of repression, left Russia on a self-imposed exile. This was his life for much of the period before 1905 (in which he really did not have much of a role) as well, but basically, now he underlined that the Bolsheviks must ’wait for the next revolutionary upsurge’. He understood that revolutionaries could not simply wish a revolutionary situation into existence. He thus only returned in 1917 - spending most of the intervening decade reading Hegel and philosophy and other ’non-revolutionary’, intellectual pursuits.

2. If you are a Mao, you go the ’protracted warfare’ way, knowing that this is going to be a long struggle won, piece by piece and not, as Lenin had expected, won in one fell swoop. So you already have to start doing economic and cultural work in the liberated areas, decades before the final victory.

3. If you belong to European communist parties, you start with democratic road to socialism and end up as Eurocommunists or set up Marxist intellectual journals from Monthly Review to New Left Review and publishing houses aligned with them. Once again, they do little more than that hated word ’intellectual’ work — even though some of them may be aligned to a political party (which too isn’t doing anything revolutionary). However much Indian Marxists might pooh-pooh intellectual work, they all get their nourishment from these sources, even now.

4. If you are a Zizek (this in lighter vein), you hold ticketed conferences on the "Idea of communism” and rock your audiences with fantasy scenarios of dictatorship and terror.

5. If you are the CPI(M), you start with land struggles and end with neoliberal dispossession of the peasantry.

Now my question is that if Lenin’s and Mao’s paths were inseparably bound up with the complete absence of democracy and democratic politics in their societies, what should ’revolutionaries’ in societies with democratic polities do? I don’t call it ‘bourgeois democracy’ because we haven’t seen any other form yet - even though that is certainly possible. In all probability that other democracy-to-come will not be something altogether other but emerge out of the radicalization of existing democracies. Indian Marxists have not, till date, despite winning elections and even forming governments from the 1950s on, produced even one tract, one serious article even (let alone have a debate) at theorizing democracy - bar retailing tired quotations from Marx, Lenin and Mao. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, occasionally Rosa Luxemburg acquired some legitimacy and began to be cited to show that Marxists take democracy seriously!

Why is it important to theorize that experience? Because it is crucially tied to the question at hand: what must revolutionaries do when there is no revolutionary situation round the corner — which is 99 percent of the time? This is when participation in electoral democracy has been undertaken, solely as an expedient, with no attempt to unpack the different layers of the question: what is democracy? What is its relationship to class rule? Why if democracy had simply been a class dictatorship, is the form of a democratic republic brought into being? After all, it makes class rule so much uncertain. Among more discerning Marxists, it is not news that the democracy that we see today was achieved through whether long series of mass struggles and was never the gift of the bourgeoisie. Has there been any attempt (in India) to theorize this role of mass struggles in radicalizing democracy and in pushing democracy away from the sterile parliamentarism of an elected oligarchy that it has lately been reduced to? All this requires that we develop an understanding of the democratic state as one that is constituted by ‘class struggle’; rather as the material condensation of social contradictions, to use Poulantzas’ formulation. This implies that withdrawing from it and arenas connected to it, means handing it over to the bourgeoisie. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. It requires bold experimentation with attempts that push democracy towards a more radical incarnation of the kind being attempted in Latin America today. If one always enters democratic politics believing that ’nothing can be done under the bourgeois framework’, then one simply ends up doing nothing. Abdication on this front also mean not pushing democracy to its limits - the way the right-wing has done, if in the other direction. Let us remember that the right-wing in India has managed to push it in a fascistic direction because there is also the ’mass movement’ to back it up.

(Author: Aditya Nigam is an academic based in Delhi and founder-member of the blog

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